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Father Fraud in Mexico

The PRI's effect on Mexican film.

Watch a number of Mexican films from the last decade or so and a few common characteristics leap forth. One is an obsession with the denizens of Mexico City coupled with a widespread disinterest in the remaining 80 percent of the country. Another is a firm embrace of pathos and a fetish for tragic endings. 
The final trend that emerges, often in tandem with the previous pair, is the conspicuous role of the Mexican father. In movie after movie, the protagonist's father appears at first glance as a distant figure of immense power, something like a Mesoamerican Zeus who periodically descends (or is summoned) to manipulate the lives of the mortals.

Fittingly, the archetype often takes the form of a politician or a businessman. He is always well-connected and always wealthy. Yet in virtually all of these movies, the father's power is eventually revealed as empty. His lightning bolts don’t punish the wicked or protect his flock; indeed, the Mexican father flails about, unsure of which levers to pull. The longer he is onscreen, the more he appears irrelevant—pathetic even—rather than omnipotent.

I hesitate to draw a straight line from film to politics, but, if you consider this gang of hapless patriarchs as a whole, it's hard to avoid comparisons with Mexico's once-hegemonic political force, the Institutional Party of the Revolution, or the PRI.

The PRI and its antecessors ruled Mexico for the final seven decades of the twentieth century, its reign coming to an end with election of Vicente Fox to the presidency in 2000. For most of this period, the PRI was authoritarian (at times brutally so), but the party was less oppressor than provider. The genius of the PRI was that it sought not to punish but to bring dissidents into the fold, and in so doing persisted in power for generations. This preference for self-sustaining co-option was implicit in Mario Vargas Llosa’s famous label for the PRI: the perfect dictatorship.

 

According to Macario Schettino, one of the PRI regime’s most prominent and pointed critics, “The PRI acted as an almost familial mechanism for power distribution, where the political chief of the region was in a sense a species of political patron: the father of all.”  

In other words, the PRI was the ultimate daddy party. In exchange for submitting to Dad’s rule, the payoff for Mexicans was stability: while neighbors suffered through myriad military coups and the subsequent cleansings, Mexico was among the most tranquil nations in Latin America during the Cold War era. 

But, as with Ricardo Vizcaíno in Amar a Morir, the PRI’s power was eventually exposed as a chimera. During the two decades before its fall, the party was an utterly ineffectual steward of the nation. And it was the Mexican citizenry that suffered, through debt crisis, armed revolt, destabilizing political assassinations, catastrophic peso devaluation, and myriad other scandals, large and small. 

The fall of the PRI was the vital event of the past seventy years of Mexican political history, and the nastiest episodes of its decline heavily marked the worldview of Mexicans born before the mid-1980s, a group that includes virtually everyone making movies in Mexico today. The PRI regime has been replaced by a democratic system, but the post-PRI era in Mexico, which turns ten years old this year, has been one of profound disappointment. (To take but one example, according to a recent report from the polling firm Latinobarómetro, the citizens of only three Latin American nations were more pessimistic about the path of their country than Mexicans.)  

In the final telling, then, the PRI delivered neither prosperity nor protection to Mexico, but perceptions of chaos and deep disillusionment. These feelings evoked drollery in Mexican filmmakers. The authoritarian father figure has long been a comic staple in Mexico (recently, in movies like Matando Cabos; decades earlier, in the dozens of delightful films from Cantinflas), usually appearing as an essentially benign force to be eluded and mocked without worry of repercussion. Neither his power nor its limits impose much of a cost on anyone. 

But in the tragic iteration of the archetype, this impotence usually has disastrous consequences. Consider the following movies: 

    • Amar a Morir: Ricardo’s political connections are sufficient to get his son Alejandro off the hook after he kills a pedestrian during a drunken drag race, and Ricardo also rescues him from a vengeful drug smuggler. Unfortunately, Alejandro cannot be saved from the shame of his crime and the life he was born into, and he winds up riddled with bullets.
    • Amar te Duele: In this Mexico City version of Romeo and Juliet, Renata’s dad struggles to keep her away from a working class boyfriend. As in the original, he fails. Renata also dies of a bullet wound.
    • Así del Precipicio: Lucía’s father is capable of protecting her from legal problems after she, in the throws of a cocaine-induced rampage, puts a bullet into a window-washer, but she nonetheless ends up abandoned by her boyfriend, overcome by addiction, and mourning the violent death of one of her best friends.

 The feeble-father trend could be extended, with varying degrees of exactitude, to include Voy a ExplotarDéficit, Fuera del Cielo, Batalla en el Cielo, Drama/Mex, and a handful of others. 

In these films, the father’s authority, superficially tremendous though it may be, offers no redemption for his troubled children. Indeed, they typically end up alone, either abandoned by their loved ones or dead. The father-protector is a fraud, as was the PRI-protector. 

The sentiment behind the cinematic characterization of dad as an impotent giant seems to be that of a country coming to terms with the limits of their parents’ wisdom, the dramatic expression of a nation’s painful political adolescence.  

Patrick Corcoran is a writer who resides in Torreón, Coahuila. He blogs at Gancho.

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